Is it hot in here, or is it me?
Crispy-skinned, pan-seared, or crusted of any kind—when a menu description brings to mind a deeply browned, so-crispy-it's-noisy piece of skin or seared meat, chances are I'm ordering it. It's that crunch, and the hopefully juicy, soft flesh that lies beneath it (vegetarians: substitute fried potatoes in your fantasy), is a large part of why I eat out in the first place.
The chefs behind those perfect proteins don't have a magic wand or a secret ingredient. So what is the key to this seductive outer crust? Just a big spoon, a limber wrist, and fat.
Basting is a technique with a number of applications. Loosely, it's a means of moistening, flavoring, and adding texture to foods by spooning melted fat, sauce or cooking juices over them while they cook. While it has a number of applications—it can be used when roasting, cooking in a rotisserie, broiling, grilling, and pan-frying foods—the one familiar to most is the Thanksgiving turkey baste.
You know the scene: The lucky host will use a brush or basting bulb (yep, those squeezy tools that look like oversized eyedroppers) to run the pan juices back over the bird while it cooks. Although, today, we're going to focus on pan-basting, all basting usually serves the same purpose.
Reasons We Baste
1. Moisture. Especially during dry-heat cooking (such as roasting), basting guarantees the food will have more contact with hot fat, juices or other liquid while it cooks. This will ultimately help prevent its surface from drying out.
2. Flavoring. Whether you're basting with hot melted butter or a seasoned sauce (think of a pan sauce seasoned with garlic or shallots), dousing the food with more of the seasonings it might miss were it sitting under a broiler or one-side-down in a pan.
3. Cutting cooking time. Imaging pan-basting as cooking with an invisible (albeit lopsided) panini press: While the bottom of the meat or fish sears against the high heat of the pan, the top will get it's fair share of cooking accomplished thanks to the hot liquids you're pouring over it. While the two sides won't cook at the same speed, it'll take less time once you flip the meat or fish, or place it in the oven to finish.
4. Creating a crust. Basting may be the agent here, or just the abettor. For one, the hot liquid or fat will help cook and, if given the time, brown the exposed side of the meat or fish in the pan (again, refer to the video—you can actually see the color of the fish change). But it'll also allow you to skip flipping the meat or fish altogether, so you can concentrate more crust-forming high heat on the side that's face-down in the pan. (Usually this is the skin side in poultry or fish, and the one that will be plated upwards later.)
5. Correcting random error. Let's say you had a bacon-crusted porkchop in the pan (drool), and you flip it over only to notice some areas of the bacon didn't crisp as much as others. In this case, you can concentrate your basting fluids onto certain parts of the dish, spooning the liquid into little crevices the pan may have neglected. This also works for crisping the sides of thick meats such as steaks and chops that may never have direct contact with the pan.
Granted, most full-time chefs would probably dominate us in the wrist Olympics involved. (You'll see in the video above.) After all, they crank out dozens of pan-cooked proteins a night.
1. Add extra fat or liquid if needed. The more your spoon is able to lap up, the more surface of the meat you'll cover per baste.
2. Keep the flame high. Since you'll need to cock the pan toward you slightly in order to pool the liquid, you'll want to be sure the pan is good and hot to begin with, and that it's still feeling the heat even if it's slightly off the burner.
3. Set yourself up for success. Position the protein away from you, in the upper half of the pan, so it won't interfere with your spooning. Then follow it's natural shape while you drizzle. If the meat is longer horizontally in the pan, spoon the juices from one side to the next. If it's longer vertically, release the juices over the top of the protein, and let them drip down over the rest of it.
Check out the video to see it all go down. With a little practice, you'll be elevating your own chicken to crispy and fish skin to phenomenal.
Be forewarned: this process may cause a mess, and you could get hot fat splashed on your hands. Home cooks should consider wearing a rubber glove on the basting hand, and a pot holder or side towel to hold the pan. Burnt fingers, and hot oil splashing is no fun!